Academic careers in dentistry are available to those who wish to expand their jobs outside of private practice. In order to be a professor in the dental realm, one needs to first be a certified and current practitioner. There are various levels of academic involvement, from part-time to full-time salaried commitment. If full-time, commitments often include teaching, research, clinical practice and university service. Dental research by itself is a viable career as well, with topics ranging from oral biology to cancer. Aside from wet lab techniques, other types of dental research exist such as evidence-based dentistry and clinical research.
Ann Griffen, DDS, M.S.
Professor, Pediatric Dentistry
The Ohio State University College of Dentistry
- Why did you choose to pursue this career path?
I had always been interested in research, but no particular area of research really grabbed me. I was working in a research lab during college, thinking I just don’t know where I wanted to go to graduate school or what I wanted to major in. I was considering nutrition, but not enough to pursue it. Then all of a sudden I thought, being a dentist would be perfect for me. I love working with my hands and dentistry seems like a great career.
I went through dental school, but even all the way through dental school, I still felt that I liked research. I was hanging out with people that did research and kept reading research material. After graduating from dental school, I tried private practice for a little bit, but I really missed academia and the academic environment. I liked science. I liked to be around people who do science and I wanted to be in the culture of science. It’s different than the clinic and clinicians.
I went back to academia to a part-time position and I really wanted to be there full time. When I got a full-time academic job, I found that I wanted to do research. Over the years, I’ve been more and more involved with research.
- What does your typical day look like? Did some aspects of your job surprise you?
I have different kinds of days. Some days, I am at the children’s hospital all day in the operating room taking care of patients, working with residents on complicated patients and thinking about nothing but patient care. It’s not simple patient care. Usually, we do more challenging cases. It’s total immersion in clinical dentistry.
And then other days, I’m at the university with a schedule that is wide open to do what I want, when I want. I always have deadlines and I always feel behind. I have papers to write, data to analyze, students to talk to and grants to review. I also have lectures to write because I give lectures to dental and dental hygiene students and teach seminars to graduate students.
More broadly, the lab is focused on figuring out the natural history of acquisition of the human oral microbiome and how perturbations in the microbiome lead to disease. We explore big diseases that we deal with as dentists, including periodontal disease and caries. They are both due to disruptions of the microbiota and microbiome community. It is a combination of novel sequencing technologies and bioinformatics methods that are being developed rapidly. Being able to work with other experts, being on cutting edge of science and using cutting edge techniques to answer questions is a lot of fun!
We have kind of a usual set up in the lab because we are a tight group of three faculty that collaborate completely. Collaboration is becoming much more common in science. It is the norm rather than the exception today. We work together and we share a lab. I’m not sure that people in the lab know who their boss is! We are bringing different skills that are overlapping together, like a Venn diagram. Because science has become complicated, it has become hard, perhaps impossible, for one person to know everything on a topic.
I am also a course director and I teach other courses in our department. I probably lecture more than everyone else in the department, but I don’t cover the predoctoral clinic as much as others do. I don’t do that at all, but I do work with the pediatric residents at the hospital. This is partly because I am a senior faculty member. I’ve worked my way up to doing more complicated things.
What surprised me over the years was how much I still love doing both things. I probably would not be happy just doing one. Although it feels a little like you’re being pulled in two different directions, it is worth it. Both are interesting and great counterbalances to each other.
- What challenges present themselves frequently in your specialty?
The challenge with being someone who is half clinical specialist and half researcher is that I’m not entirely at home at any one place. I have so many things going on. You have to invent this role and it is not a common role. You have to try to balance the two things.
Research is driven by money because it takes people, supplies and equipment to do research. Much of the clinically related research that is done requires large amounts of money. So a lot of your scientific life is spent doing what it takes to get grants so you can do research. It becomes very competitive, but also very interactive. You have people constantly reviewing other people’s work to determine who gets the grant money and who gets published. It’s more like a community than it is for private practice. With practice, you are in little bit of competition to get patients. In research, you are interacting with your peers a lot, while in private practice you are interacting with your staff and patients more. It is very much a community of peers, while practice isn’t, which is what I think I missed when I was in private practice.
- What makes your field unique?
The level of challenge is greater for academic dentists, especially if you work in a hospital. The patients are more complex and we have to interact with other specialists and medical colleagues more than a typical suburban practice. This is what makes academic dentistry different than private practice. Not that private practice is not challenging, we just see a higher fraction of challenging cases.
Compared to just being a faculty member that only teaches students, being an academic dentist adds another level of complexity and challenge that is very compelling and very rewarding. It is a whole different group of people that you get to spend time with. Research students are different than dental students. Having a research lab where everyone is doing creative work is totally different than working in the clinic where everyone is trying to follow standard protocols and do them well. For me, practicing in a dental office is kind of lonely. Although your patients and office staff are wonderful, it is different than working with your peers and research people. I love working with my colleagues at the hospital. It’s fun to huddle around a case and give each other advice, but being in the lab is more fun. It is another world. Having some of both in your career is really nice.
- What additional training, credentials or licenses are required beyond dental school for your career? What additional training would you recommend beyond what is required?
Things have changed a little bit since I trained. Nowadays, combined DDS/Ph.D. programs are not uncommon. A DDS/Ph.D. program is the typical path to an academic, research intensive dental career and would be what I would advise anyone who wants to do this career to do. This wasn’t an opportunity that was broadly available when I was training. Obviously, you can train yourself, but you have to be lucky enough to have a job where your institution allows you to develop as a researcher.
In science, everything is peer reviewed. Your work gets scrutinized by other people. You, as a scientist, are asked to do a lot of peer review. Seminars are a common form of scientific communication, both attending them and giving them. There is a lot of communication, a lot of reading and a lot of journals. Information is being exchanged in science all of the time. Science and research is more about loving to process and communicate information and then thinking of what needs to be done and taking the next step.
- What are current trends in your field? In what ways is it advancing?
In pediatric dentistry, dentistry is getting closer to medicine. We need to know more about the health of the whole child. As we learn more about the dental treatments and preventive strategies that work, dentistry is moving towards evidence-based dentistry. Although in academia we always worked that way, now evidence-based dentistry is becoming more part of the culture of dentistry. As dentistry moves towards evidence-based dentistry, there is more of a need for academic dentists to provide the evidence for clinicians to use.
- What skills are especially important in your field?
Science is very discipline specific. The skill set that is required for different areas of research varies quite greatly, whether you work in a lab that researches cancer or the microbiome. You are in a different set up for each laboratory. You need to have different skills in the lab. The literature you will be reading is different.
Research is even getting pretty specialized at the undergraduate level these days. Part of becoming a researcher in graduate education is that first every student needs mentoring. The growth process is learning more and more of how to become independent and formulate questions. I think learning how to answer questions comes before how to formulate questions, which comes into play later in science.
- What advice would you give to somebody interested in your career path?
My most fundamental piece of advice is that it is hard work to be a research intensive clinician. Pursuing this career has to be its own reward. You wouldn’t want to do it if you find that it doesn’t make you happy. It is hard work and it interferes with family life. If you want a more mainstream kind of lifestyle, it might not work out well with a research career. It really needs to be its own reward, not for recognition, prizes or other people’s approval. You have to get a lot of personal reward for doing it. People may say you are a wonderful student and that you should be an academic, but plenty of students are clinicians and are very, very happy as clinicians. For many scientists, their work is their recreation and serious research is a culture like that. You have to do what you want to do to be happy, otherwise, you will be frustrated.
Furthermore, learn as much as you can as an undergraduate. If you are really interested in research, I would advise completing four years of undergraduate and learning as much basic science as you can, rather than trying to get accepted to dental school earlier. Getting a Ph.D. is enormously helpful and you will learn a lot. You are investing years of your life, so it’s better to know whether you want to pursue this track. The worst thing that can happen is that you will use three years of your life completing the DDS/Ph.D. when you could have started your life and career.
After getting your Ph.D., it is important to have an academic home as a researcher and faculty member. You should consider specializing to find this academic home. There aren’t too many jobs for general dentists to be involved in serious research. Most jobs are within specialties, where you are an expert in a field within your specialty. Not that a general dentist faculty researcher can’t happen, it’s just uncommon.
There is a constraint in the timing of your educational track. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) funds some DDS/Ph.D. programs and a stipulation is that they require you complete the DDS/Ph.D. program before you specialize. That may change in the future. If you are lucky, you can find a fellowship to pay your way through dental school and a Ph.D. program.